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Diving in with Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles

STEM program combines ­engineering and fun

Arnold Elementary School fifth-graders Madeline Fisher and Emily Ernst apply toilet ring wax to the motors of their underwater remote operated vehicle.

Hallie Zlokovitz dips her fingers into a tub of sticky, greasy toilet ring wax and stuffs it into what looks like a film container. At the next table, Emily Ernst has pushed her sleeves up above her colorful bracelets so that she doesn’t get the wax on them. Kathryn Willhite takes sandpaper to the motors that power her Sea-3P0 model.
    Wait, SEA-3P0? At first glance, the object in question appears to be little more than gold-painted PVC pipes. But once Willhite adds foam and zip-tied wires attached to motors, she will have completed her SeaPerch, an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV).
    The girls, all fifth-graders at Arnold Elementary School, are part of the SeaPerch Club, an engineering and design program from the Office of Naval Research that walks students through building their own ROVs.
    “The goal of the program is to introduce students to engineering,” says Mary Hartman, Anne Arundel County Public Schools STEM department chair. “We hope to encourage their interest in the field, build their skill sets and gain confidence to pursue future careers in STEM fields.”
    The submergible — and by proxy, its creators — tests its mettle by running an obstacle course at the bottom of a tank on the U.S. Naval Academy campus. It’s a high-tech competition for pint-sized engineers, many of whom knew very little about robotics and motors and wiring just six months ago.

Kathryn Willhite, a fifth grader at Arnold Elementary, uses sandpaper on the motor of her team’s golden Sea-3P0.

    “These kids learn how to use tools and develop flexibility, cooperation and adaptability,” says Dana Smith, club advisor and guidance counselor at Arnold Elementary.
    In May, about 400 fifth graders from 32 elementary schools head to the SeaPerch Showcase to run their devices in the tanks and tackle engineering challenges such as balloon flinkers and air rocket launches.
    At the middle and high school level, the clubs hold competitions locally, regionally and nationally. This weekend, regional competitions go on at the Naval Academy, where Angela Moran heads the STEM Center for Education and Outreach.
    “SeaPerch is a hands-on program,” Moran says. “A lot of the kids who excel in this program are the same children who don’t always do well in traditional learning.”